News from Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Monday, June 30, 2014

Point of View -- The Last Word

Point of view is something all beginning writers struggle with. It is simply a matter of letting the reader know who they are in the story. Imagine you are playing a role in a film. This is who you are, this is what you see, and this is how you feel about it, and what you understand is going on in the scene. How you choose to convey all this to your reader, to make him part of the story, is the point of view. You have to decide how you’re going to do this. There are a lot of choices and it can get pretty confusing. In the last two blogs I’ve only told you how I’ve dealt with this, with some success, with two of them, Interior Monologue and Omniscient. I’m also a beginning author, not an expert and only sharing my experience.
Most of us write in third person POV. You pick out your main character and see the action through their eyes. You let the reader know in the first line or two of the chapter who that person is and can establish how they feel about themselves and the world around them. This is where “show, don’t tell” comes in. You don’t say: “she saw him and was frightened.” You say: “The menace reflected in his eyes and the way his fists clenched made her heart pound.”
The good news is that there is an expert who has written a series of books that not only explain POV, but the entire craft of writing. Her name is Dr. Angela Hunt. There are seven short, easy to read books in the series titled, Writing Lessons From The Front. The first book is about plot, the second about creating characters, the third about point of view, the fourth is titled Tracking Down the Weasel Words.
Weasel words? All beginning writers do it. We use too many words to describe a scene or make a point. A very wise mentor of mine, Dusty Richards, who is a member of my writing group and has published at least a hundred and forty western novels, puts it this way, “You have to have something happening on every page.” Dr. Hunt tells you how to find all those extra words and get rid of them to keep the action flowing.
The fifth book is Evoking Emotion, or how to keep your readers hooked on reading. She tells you how. The sixth book is Planning and Process, or all that stuff you must do before you get around to writing, and the seventh book is Tension on the Line. You have six seconds to hook your reader on the first page and you have to keep that tension going throughout the book. This might be the most important book in the series, but you need them all if you’re going to be a writer.
The entire series is very affordable as e-books, but if you can choose only one, make it Point of View. Dr. Hunt’s easy, conversational style not only takes the mystery out of the subject, but gives you the freedom to experiment using more than one point of view in a scene or a chapter.
In my western romance, Maddie’s Choice, I used two POVs. Maddie is from New York, a writer, and she has a smart mouth and a sense of humor. Gideon, the male protagonist, is a bitter, disillusioned war veteran, suffering from PTSD. His voice and approach to Maddie’s shenanigans keeps the pace and the humor flowing.
Learn the rules, understand the reasons for them, then go your own way. Rules were made to be broken, as Dr. Hunt says.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Point of View--Interior Monologue

The Interior Monologue point of view is one of the most powerful devices an author has to reveal the inner core of a character. It requires sinking deep into a character, living in the moment, voicing thoughts uncensored by political correctness or culture. In other words, it reveals the basest emotions. It is a great way to give a lot of backstory in a few words, but it requires real effort on the part of the author to sink into the character and become that person. You must lose yourself and all your inhibitions and let go.  Sometimes it is called, “stream of consciousness.”  That means there are no pronouns like I or no tags like ‘he thought.’ It is the character talking to himself, revealing truths he’d never voice aloud.
I used this device in a short story in a December blog about two years ago. The title is “Marilyn Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” The scene is on a sidewalk in Chicago. Henry is waiting for his ride. It goes like this:
“I've lost my mind.  I'm standing in a puddle of slush on the sidewalk, in Downtown Chicago, waiting for my ride and shivering my ass off, because I've been sucked into to another Christmas cocktail party. Hell, I just came from an office party. 
“I’m a pushover that’s what. I hate these things. The food is lousy, alcohol gives me a headache, and I stand around trying to look like I'm having fun, but nobody wants to talk to me. Bud wants me to meet this woman he's gone ape over--the broad he's going to marry if he can talk her into it, and, OK, I owe him. He’s new in the office and the only one who’s tried to be friendly in a while. The rest of those losers all took Marilyn’s side in the divorce and now they just ignore me. Learned a lesson there.  Four years of marriage is more than enough. Shit, if the guy wants me to go to this party to meet this woman, well, what the hell.” 

So, what have we learned about Henry in one short paragraph? He’s unpleasant, opinionated, friendless, divorced, doesn’t like women and abused his wife, at least verbally. He’s lonely and wants to please Bud. You also suspect that the author doesn’t like him either and he’s being set up to get his comeuppance. You're curious, you’ll keep on reading. 
The entire story is Interior Monologue, in Henry’s point of view. You can read the rest in my blog archives.
IM is a good way to get in a lot of backstory quickly, to establish a character. Since it involves intense emotion, it is best used in extreme situations, like the innermost thoughts of someone about to be murdered, or commit murder, or a character experiencing an extreme situation.
I used IM in another way in Accidental Alien. The scene: a seed pod from outer space, has just germinated, in a forest on Earth, producing a young plant that will mature, in a short time, and become a being that looks like a man, but is really a plant. At this point he has only hearing, smell, and an imbedded artificial intelligence.
“His hearing, especially acute, detected sounds of movement—some slight vibrations in the ground, accompanied by the approaching sound of rhythmic crunching and tearing. A new scent caught his attention. It smelled oddly fecal. What was it? What were those succulent sounds, wet and juicy, like plants being ripped from moorings? He interpreted the "something" as animal, chewing and eating vegetation, and he was directly in its path. The greenish odor of freshly bruised leaves caught in his senses, alarming him.
“No, this couldn't happen. Terror ripped through him. He was going to be consumed as food. Images of rending and grinding by jagged teeth threw him into a panic. He wanted to live, to grow into his pre-destined form, whatever that might be, and explore this strange place.”

IM is much like internalization, where you interrupt dialogue or the progression of the story to let the reader know what your point of view character is thinking and feeling. The following are excerpts from near the end of Maddie’s Choice. The scene is during a gunfight between drug dealers and the Feds.  Maddie is handcuffed to a corral fence when her captor is shot. This is internalization:
“Blood, obscenely, brilliantly red, welled in thick globs from his shoulder. She couldn’t look away. She’d written scenes like this, never imagining the awful color of real blood from a mortal wound.”
If I had used IM here, it would read like: “Blood everywhere. How could one body have that much blood? The gorge flooding her mouth, dribbled down her chin, burning her lips. Hold it together. Can’t black out.”
The use of IM here would have distracted from the flow of the action, but you can see how much more dramatic it would have been.
Next time: First Person, present, past and future.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Point of View--What is it and who cares?

I had enormous trouble with Point of View when I began writing. There is a rule in fiction writing that every word has to be in somebody’s point of view—in other words how the main character in that scene is experiencing the moment. My critique group despaired that I would ever “get it,” but the truth is, unless you write in POV, you’ll never get published. Editors won’t read your stuff. If your fame equals Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy you can write anyway you choose. For the rest of us, near the bottom of the food chain, if you don’t follow the rule, you’re spinning your wheels.
To complicate matters, there are many Points of View. Your only recourse is to know them all, and then you decide what to use. I’ve never read an explanation that made any sense, so, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to try to explain them all in simple, understandable fashion, with some examples.
We’ll start with my favorite—the one you are never to use—which I use all the time. It’s called Omniscient, but I like to call it Authors, because it is you, the writer, invading the narrative with comment, or simply writing the scene with no one else in it with a point of view.
Example: “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived dragon.” That is your voice, telling a story. I used Omniscient as a beginning for Christmas For Annabel. I wanted to clue my reader in that this was going to be a fairy tale with Christmas Magic and a happy ending, so I used it in the prologue. To Whit: “Imagine, if you will, on a cold frosty night, an all but deserted downtown city street. It is a few days before Christmas, and all is quiet.” It sets the scene for a modern love story.
I used it sparingly in Maddie’s Choice. A scene in the first chapters of the book has Gideon, my troubled male protagonist, and Maddie, my irrepressible female, having dinner with two ranch hands and Gideon’s two young nephews. They’ve been telling silly knock-knock jokes and laughing while Gideon sits glaring. He leaves the table to go to his office. I end the chapter with: “They spent the next half-hour cleaning up, talking companionably, and occasionally laughing, unaware that Gideon listened from his office down the hall, wishing he were part of it.” This is my reader’s first hint that here is a lonely man, needing love.
John Steinbeck, my favorite author, was a master of this, but he wrote when omniscient was allowed. In his novel, Sweet Thursday, Doc, a marine biologist, one of the loneliest persons you’ll ever meet and the main character, is conversing with a girl he picked up in a bar, trying to get her interested in octopi.  Steinbeck interjects: There’s no need for giving the girl a name. She never came back . . .” Wow. Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know about her and him?
If you still don’t get it, e-mail me at and we’ll talk.
One last example from a novel that, as my agent, Jeanie Liaocono would say, is waiting to be published. To set the scene: the guys are playing poker in one of the motel rooms; the girls are having their own party down the hall that has gotten way too loud. A harried manager has summoned the guys to do something about it. “Lloyd’s concern for Penny sent him to the head of the group hurrying down the corridor. The noise from room 112 bounced off the walls. Like a posse of vigilantes, ready to storm the gates, the men advanced.
The last word is author intrusion, and will probably be booted by my editor, but it was fun writing it.
Next week: Interior Monologue, the one you have to know before you get to Third Person, Single Point of View.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Secrets to Writing Fiction

My writer’s group, The Northwest Arkansas Writers, to whom I owe any success I’ve had being published, held a conference a few weeks ago, which I attended. There were two things, especially that I took away. One was from the lecture given by member Dusty Richards, the foremost writer in the Western Genre today, with over a hundred twenty books to his credit.
He was discussing chapters. His first advice: Never simply end a chapter. Always add a hook, or a sense of what is to come, so your reader won’t put down the book, but turn the page and continue. Good advice. Go back and check your work in progress to be sure you did that.
The second advice is really a writing technique. He says it is his secret to being so successful, but he willingly shared it:  Start each chapter with a strong sense of place, so the reader knows where he is, but don’t mention the name of the Point of View Character until you must, for clarity. Use the pronoun ‘he,’ or ‘she,’ as long as possible before you say the name.
For instance: He looked around and saw unfamiliar landscape, dry, dusty, empty of life. He was lost.
 Or: She felt the sun as the clouds cleared, revealing the tops of the mountains. Her soul was filled with happiness. What does this do? It brings your reader into the scene. The reader becomes the character and starts living the story. When you have your reader truly hooked, mention the character.
This next comes from member Duke Pennell, owner of Pen-L Publishing, editor and publisher of the e-magazine, of Frontier Tales. His advice: What publisher’s want, is not only someone who has obviously worked to perfect their writing skills, but someone who is easy to work with. Make the corrections. Don’t be a drama lemon. Take criticism gracefully, at least until you’ve carefully considered it. Just might be the publisher or editor knows more about what is good and what sells than you do.
Second: Remember that, although writing a book involves creativity and talent, once you’ve sold the book, you’ve become a businessman, not a writer. Publishing is a business. It means return on investment. Take it seriously, learn marketing and social media, take your publisher’s suggestions and do what you can gain readers.
 It was a Saturday well spent. I even sold a book.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Build Your Characters From Reality. Show, Don't Tell.

Characters build the novel. If your protagonists don’t have enough substance so you can get into their soul and experience what they feel, or you can predict how they are going to respond to a situation, you are going to lose your reader. Beginning writers hear, from their writer’s group constantly, the words, “Show, don’t tell.” Isn’t enough to say, ‘he felt lonely, alone and abandoned’?
No, it is not. Consider my male protagonist, Gideon, in Maddie’s Choice. Grandparents raised Gideon and his brother when their parents were killed. Zeke was about ten. Gid was about six. His grandfather, who had no time for the rebellious Gid, favored Zeke. After Gid’s grandmother died, when he was about ten, there was no love at all for Gid, so he joined the military right after high school, and became a sniper in Afghanistan, which led to his return to the ranch with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Now, this is entirely too much backstory to dump on a reader during a scene. Bits and pieces of this are revealed throughout the book, but I use a flashback scene to reveal the source of Gideon’s loneliness. To whit:
“A wisp of memory floated through his mind, of a time right after his parents disappeared. He was six years old, feeling sad and lost because his dad had gone. He wondered if they were dead, but the word was never used. He’d been told Dad and Mom went to “a better place,” and it confused him. They were his whole world. Why would they go someplace better and leave him behind?
On that day, lonely and yearning for comfort, he’d found his grandfather working in his office. Needing to be held. He tried to climb up onto his lap, only to be pushed off.
“I don’t have time to play with you, Gideon. Go find Zeke.”
As young as he was, he understood that is grandfather was lost to him. His older brother, Zeke, was the favored one with lap privileges.”
Where did that scene come from? It came to mind when I remembered something similar happening to my young son and his grandfather.
As I said before, draw from within yourself to give life to your writing. This tale is a preface to a PTSD attack in which Gideon seeks refuge in the corner of the barn, where Maddie finds him.
This is much better than simply saying, “Lonely, and distraught, he sought refuge in the corner of the barn.”
I’ve had readers ask me if Maddie was somehow me in this book. Well, yeah, as it will be in every other book. If you don’t pour yourself into your book . . . the famous advice to ‘open a vein and bleed,’ your readers won’t sense the realness of the story. It doesn’t have to be you, but you have to listen to every conversation you will ever have and sense the story underneath, so you might use it.
There is a t-shirt out there that says, ”Careful, you might be in my next book.”
So true!